Immigration reform setbacks darken outlook for action

Published Sep. 21, 2013

WASHINGTON — Three months after the Senate passed a far-reaching immigration reform bill, momentum has slipped to a slow roll in the House, raising doubts on whether anything can be accomplished this year.

The Republican-dominated House was never expected to act fast, but a series of setbacks — including Friday when two Republicans quit a bipartisan immigration working group — make for a murky outlook.

"I read our obituary every day," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform America's Voice. "Have we lost some momentum? Yes. But I think our fundamentals are stronger than the congressional dysfunction, and it'll surprise people when they find a way forward."

Optimism, though, is increasingly met with angst as the legislative calendar shrinks amid debates over Syria, the federal budget and health care.

Last week, more than 100 women were arrested after sitting in the street outside the U.S. Capitol to protest inaction. On Friday, a handful of activists, including an undocumented woman from Orlando, were arrested while demonstrating outside House Speaker John Boehner's office.

Business groups, seeking more visas for workers, are worried as well and have tried to get things moving.

"We urge Congress not to miss this opportunity to level the playing field for U.S. employers," read a letter to Boehner signed by human resource directors of some of the country's major corporations. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was on Capitol Hill this week to make his own pitch.

Immigration reform, long mired in partisanship, got sudden life after last year's presidential election. Republicans received dismal support from Hispanic voters, a growing share of the electorate. That led to swift action on a comprehensive bill in the Senate that would provide billions of dollars in new security while providing an "earned" pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants.

The excitement that followed the bipartisan vote was blunted by prospects in the more conservative House. Many Republicans flatly reject a path to citizenship for so many people.

A number of Republicans came around amid heavy lobbying during the summer recess when the once-fierce opposition was more like a whimper. Rep. Dan Webster of Orlando, an area with a fast-growing Hispanic population, was among the converts and was held up as an example of how the reformers "won" the summer.

But Webster didn't want to talk about the issue Thursday, saying he was focused on the budget. (His office provided the Times with a statement Friday saying border security must come before anything.)

His reticence underscores the lost momentum in the House. Another setback arrived Friday when two Texas Republicans who had been part of a group working on immigration legislation backed out, citing concerns President Barack Obama was not doing enough to enforce current law (ignoring record deportations under Obama that continue to draw protests). The lawmakers were facing blowback from conservatives — not unlike what Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a leader in his chamber's reform bill, still endures. Rubio has gone mostly quiet on the issue.

The bipartisan House group has struggled for years to come up with legislation. The lone Republican remaining is Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who pledged Friday to continue to seek solutions.

"We've known for sometime this bipartisan group was effectively dead," said Sharry, the activist. "I think Republican leadership didn't want a comprehensive bill because it invokes the specter of Obamacare. They've gotten so invested in a step-by-step process."

The House Judiciary Committee has already passed four separate bills, addressing security and high-skilled worker visas, and the chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said Thursday that more are being worked on.

Appearing at a GOP event marking Hispanic Heritage Month, Goodlatte said he was hopeful the full House could take up the legislation next month but conceded it's up to leadership.

He sent another encouraging sign by saying he supported an "earned" path to citizenship for youth brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. "We have objections to the Senate bill but we don't say we want to kill the Senate bill," Goodlatte said. "We say we want to do immigration reform right."

Dayana Torres, 19, sat in the audience and was pleased by Goodlatte's tone. She attended a town hall he held recently in his district, where he was playing up the tougher enforcement side. Torres, who was brought to the country illegally from Colombia when she was 9, said the slower pace does not yet worry her.

"It's definitely something we need to get done, but we don't want to hurry it to the point that it won't be well thought out," she said.

"We're at a critical juncture," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who was among those arrested near the Capitol last week. "We feel history is on our side and there is majority support for immigration reform. We're not going to take the legislative timetable or other excuses from the House. We're going to keep fighting."